When you look back on your teacher education or coaching programs what do you actually remember learning? With the greatest respect to my teachers (both at university and in my schools) I remember very little. Well, not specifically that is. I remember doing sessions on my PGCE (twenty-four years ago) on dance and health and athletics and hockey but I don’t remember what I was taught. Is there a chance that some of this knowledge is now so ingrained in my practice that I couldn’t articulate it or say when I learnt it? Probably. What does this tell me about teacher education? That it’s rubbish? I hope not because I am a teacher educator. That it makes the explicit, implicit? Maybe? That I/we need to take more care of the messages we are trying to put across? Almost definitely.
Some of my research is – and has for a number of years – explored my teaching from a reflective standpoint. To call it research though is a disservice to what I do. Part of my everyday practice is to reflect on my practice and to try and make explicit the implicit elements of what I do, those bits that I often just can’t put my fingers on. I seek to ask and better understand why I make the decisions that I do and how I can articulate them so that others can learn from them. Call it what you want – practitioner research, autobiographical research, narrative inquiry, action research, and/or autoethnography – it’s an attempt to articulate practice from a personal perspective. Indeed, one of the key messages to come out of this week’s paper is that reflection on practice helps individuals to better develop their practice.
Now my reflections aren’t the idle musings at the end of the day or the blow-by-blow act of the specific actions we take as teachers. For example, “I started with a warmup and then we did a practice and all the students were engaged etc. etc.” These, to me, don’t explain the why. Why did you do that particular warm-up? Why did you choose the practice? What was it meant to achieve? What was the purpose? Why did you say something then and not say anything there? These are the questions I try to answer.
Such questions, and my engagement in reflective practice, is the essence of my teaching and is also the focus of the huge body of research that has gone into this week’s review and yet real knowledge about these implicit or tacit actions and inactions (although by saying nothing that is still an action) is lacking. Given how many lessons are taught everyday – both in schools and universities – this is a big oversight, but it is something we can do something about. Could you articulate those decisions, actions, words and say why they were significant? It’s not as easy as it looks but it is, in my opinion, one way of significantly better understanding the so call ‘art’ of teaching and learning i.e. pedagogy.
Amade-Escot explores Pedagogical Content Knowledge (PCK), i.e. “research… based primarily on theory focusing on teachers’ cognition”, and didactics i.e. “research… based primarily on the structure of the content of the school discipline (physical education) as the decisive elements of the teaching process. It is important to note that the French word didactique does not translate well into English and is meant as a more holistic term for pedagogy than the use of didactic (i.e. command style) teaching in the UK and US. Amade-Escot defines the term didactique as “the irreducible three-way relationship linking teacher, students, and knowledge taught”.
PCK, Amade-Escot argues, looks at teacher cognition i.e. their professional understanding, and represents the “configuration of specific knowledge (sometimes tacit) based on experience and strongly embedded in action.” In other words she suggests that teachers show their professional understanding through the ways that they teach and the way they structure the learning environment and the task. However, this understanding is often hard to verbalise and occurs in the moment, which leads very much to the idea that more experienced teachers are simply better teachers.
A key finding the paper presents is that experienced teachers were “more focused on the content to be acquired by students and better anticipated the transitions between activities.” In comparison novice teachers appeared to change activities on impulse and then appeared to have no objective reason for the change. Indeed, beginning teachers often misunderstand the lessons of their teacher education courses, they often struggle to structure and retain these lessons at the end of their course. Indeed Amade-Escot argues that novice teachers are often forced into a “curricular zone of safety” where they do enough to pass the course but no more.
Another key finding was that “experience modifies teachers’ conceptions of teaching… [and the] enrichment and diversification of PCK”. Significantly the role of school context and individual teacher characteristics were both important in the refinement of teachers’ approaches to teaching. When the context was favourable to enrichment and diversification then there were positive repercussions on professional knowledge.
Changing focus Amade-Escot looked at the programme of didactics research (i.e. pedagogy), which she suggests is interested in the way in which content is structured in the school context. She explained that didactics took a macro, meso and micro focus.
At a macro level researchers’ explore curricula and the national and/or institutional ‘translation’ of subject matter from the “academic discipline” to the “school discipline”. At a meso level research has looked specifically at how knowledge is reshaped to make it accessible to students. At a micro level research has looked at the implementation of this transformed knowledge in the classroom; particularly in the situations and activities that make up physical education. This has resulted in the exploration of the ideas of “didactic transposition” and the “didactic contract”.
“Didactic transposition” (concerned with the “inevitable phenomena of transformation, elaboration, and reconstruction of the knowledge to be taught”) and “didactic contract” (“the set of negotiations, usually implicit, between teacher and students about the knowledge to be taught in a given situation”) are both actions on behalf of the teacher. They help us to better understand how the didactic system of physical education works. Transformation is key in the pedagogical process and shows how subject matter is divided and sequenced. The notion of contract speaks of the ways in which teaching and learning are positioned in a school and in specific classrooms.
Bringing these two ideas – PCK and Didactics - together allowed for comparisons to be made. Amade-Escot concluded by suggesting that while PCK research indicated that experience was important didactics research said that the content of physical education depends “less on experience than on specific competence in terms of didactic knowledge of the physical activity taught”. In other words, importance should be placed on how ideas are translated into action.
The question for me is “what do you think?” We all know colleagues who, regardless of their approach to teaching ‘knock the socks off’ the learner and others, despite their expertise or experience seem to lack the spark needed to teach. But how much of teaching is implicit and tacit and how much can you teach teachers? When you have student teachers in your classroom or when you come across something new how do you find the best way to teach? Can you articulate it? Or like most people do you struggle to put into words what you do ‘naturally’?
What’s next? As part of this series of blogs I propose the following as a way of considering the implications of this research on your teaching- Think, Act, Change (or TAC for short).
Think about findings of the paper – do they resonate with you? Use Twitter (@DrAshCasey) to ask a question, seek clarification, maybe challenge the findings.
Act on what you’ve read. What do you believe? Is it your responsibility to make changes or is this just something else that I’ve put on your plate? Is there action to take? If so, what might it be?
Change what you do in response to your thoughts and actions? Is this a personal undertaking? If you want to do something, or are looking for help, then please let the community know about it.
I wouldn’t expect every paper to get beyond the T or even the A of TAC but if one paper resonates enough to get to C then hopefully all this is worthwhile. Good luck.
Amade-Escot, C. (2000). “The Contribution of Two Research Programs on Teaching Content: "Pedagogical Content Knowledge" and "Didactics of Physical Education”” Journal of Teaching in Physical Education, 20 (1): 78-101